John Suler's Teaching Clinical Psychology

Using Interviews in Research

(guidelines for students doing interview research projects)

interview research

What is the Interview?

Structured versus Unstructured Interviews

The Content versus the Process of the Interview

Steps in Conducting the Interview

Basic interview techniques

Ending the Interview

Take notes

How to Use the Interview Data in Your Paper

What is the Interview?

Interviews provide in-depth information about a particular research issue or question. Because the information is not quantifiable (i.e., not amenable to statistical analysis), the interview often is described as a qualitative research method. Whereas quantitative research methods (e.g., the experiment) gather a small amount of information from many subjects, interviews gather a broad range of information from a few subjects.

When we analyze the results from an interview we use the "hermeneutic method." We look at how all the statements made by the interviewee are inter-related. What are the contradictions and consistencies? What is the "big picture" of what the interviewee is trying to say - and how does every individual statement from the interviewee relate to this big picture? The interview is a "holistic" research method: all the bits of data from the interviewee provide you this "big picture" that transcends any one single bit of data.

The information from the interview is not objective data as in quantitative research methods. If the interviewee is an expert on some particular topic or possesses some special skill or experience, his or her responses may be "facts" or "opinions" depending on how you look at it. It really doesn't matter. A good interview is the art and science of exploring the subjective knowledge, opinions, and beliefs of an individual. The knowledge, opinions, and beliefs of that person are a "system." The purpose of the interview is to explore that system and all of its elements.

Structured versus Unstructured Interviews

The structured interview consists of a list of specific questions. The interviewer does not deviate from the list or inject any extra remarks into the interview process. The interviewer may encourage the interviewee to clarify vague statements or to further elaborate on brief comments. Otherwise, the interviewer attempts to be objective and tries not to influence the interviewer's statements. The interviewer does not share his or her own beliefs and opinions. The structured interview is mostly a "question and answer" session.

The "unstructured" interview is more free-wheeling. You may ask the same sort of questions as in the structured interview, but the style is free-flowing rather than rigid. It is more conversational. You adjust your questions according to how the interviewee is responding. You may even inject your own opinions or ideas in order to stimulate the interviewee's responses. Therefore, the unstructured interview requires much more skill, is much more complex, and is a far more fascinating process.

I encourage you to use the unstructured method.

The Content versus the Process of the Interview

The "content" of the interview is WHAT the interviewee says. This is the easiest component of the interview to study, and tends to be what the novice focuses on. The most accurate way to record the content of the interview is by using a tape recorder.

The "process" of the interview is a much more elusive but powerful component of the interview. It involves reading between the lines of what the interviewee says. It involves noticing HOW he or she talks and behaves during the interview. HOW the interviewee responds will give you more insights into the content of what he or she says. Your observations of the interview process may confirm, enrich, and sometimes even contradict the content of what the person says.

Think of the interview (especially the structured interview) as a standardized situation to which interviewees are exposed. The questions you ask everyone may be exactly the same, but everyone will react to the interview situation differently. These differences can be very informative! They reveal the "process." They will tell you much about the holistic picture (the "big picture") of each interview session.

To explore the interview process, consider these sorts of questions:

  • when does the interviewee sound confident or uncertain, confused or clear, convincing or doubtful, rational or illogical, etc?
  • does the interviewee ever contradict himself or herself?
  • how do the pieces of what the interviewee says fit together?
  • at what points does the interviewee show enthusiasm and emotion, and what kinds of emotion?
  • what is the interviewee's body language; when does it change?
  • how does the interviewee speak: slow or fast, soft or loud, clear or mumbly, with simple or elaborate language, etc?
  • does the interviewee's appearance or surroundings (e.g., his or her office) provide any insights?
One very important source of information about the process of the interview is how you personally react to the person. In a sense, you are using yourself as a "barometer" to assess the interviewee. Ask yourself these questions:
  • What thoughts and feelings get stirred up in you: irritation, affection, excitement, boredom, inspiration, anger, jealousy, confusion, etc?
  • Do any pictures, memories, or daydreams flash through your mind?
  • How do you find yourself behaving during the interview?
  • Can you pinpoint exactly when your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors change in reaction to the interviewee?
  • Do you react differently to different interviewees? What might these differences tell you about the interviewee's response to the interview (and what do they tell you about yourself)?
Understanding the "process" of the interview is difficult. Getting good at it takes experience. Tape recordings of the interview are helpful, but also be sure to jot down ideas immediately after the session - especially ideas about your personal reactions to the interview.

Steps in Conducting the Interview

1. ESTABLISH RAPPORT: Introduce yourself. Be polite, friendly, but also professional. Establishing good rapport will help the interview along. Casual chit-chat (about the weather, etc.) at the very beginning of the session is usually O.K.

2. DESCRIBE THE PROJECT: Tell the person who you are: that you are a psychology student at Rider, what requirements the project fulfills for you (e.g., independent study), what professor is working with you on the project, why you are interested in this project, etc. Tell the person what your project is about, what the interview entails, and the purpose of the interview for your project. Ask the person if it is O.K. to tape record the interview. If they say no, just drop the topic.

* Some components of steps 1 & 2 may occur over the phone when you make the initial contact to ask people to participate. But repeat these steps again (especially #2) when you meet with them in person.

3. OBTAIN INFORMED CONSENT: To stick to the ethical standards for psychological research, you should obtain informed consent from the person. A written consent form will contain the types of information you described in #2 above. Be sure the form clarifies what the interview entails and how the information from it will be used in your project. Be sure it informs the person that you would like to tape record the session. Be sure it informs the person that you might be quoting them in your paper.

It should be noted that ethical standards do not require that informed consent be written. Many researchers in the past have simply relied on a verbal consent. Feel out how your interviewees will react to written consent. To make sure the interviewee understands the project, it's often best that they see the information about the project in written form. It's usually best to have written consent.

4. GO AHEAD WITH THE INTERVIEW: The goal is to get the person to express their ideas about particular issues. Everyone is different and everyone reacts to an interview differently. As the interviewer, your learning how to deal with these differences is an ART. You will be trying to help the interviewees to: (1) open up and express their ideas, (2) express their ideas CLEARLY, (3) explain and elaborate on their ideas, (4) focus on the issues at hand rather than wander to unrelated topics.

Here are some basic techniques and statements that can help you help interviewees to open up and clearly express their ideas:

Clarification: Getting the person to clearly explain himself.
"Could you tell me more about the part about xxx"
"I'm not sure I understood the part about xxx - could you explain that some more?"

Reflection: Reflecting back something important the person just said in order to get them to expand on that idea.
"So you believe that depression is hereditary."
"Then you do disagree with Dr. Smith."

Encouragement: Encouraging them to pursue a line of thought.
"The part about xxx is interesting. Could you say more about that?"
"I find that fascinating! Tell me more."

Comment: Injecting your own idea or feeling to stimulate the person into saying more.
"I always thought that ..."
"That part about xxx scares me."
"If I were in that situation, I would ..."

Spur: Saying something to tease, spur, or challenge the person (in a friendly way) to say more.
"But isn't it true that ...?"
"But some people would say that ..."
"Do you honestly believe that?"

Summary: Try to summarize the person's ideas to see if you really understood what he or she was saying.
"So what your saying is ..."
"So your major point is that ..."
"Let me see if I can summarize what you've said..."

5. ENDING THE INTERVIEW: Be sensitive to the person's schedule and time limits. Try to "wind down" rather than end abruptly. See if you can summarize their major points. Ask them again if they have any questions about the project. Let them know how to contact you if they need to. Thank them for their help.

6. TAKE NOTES: Always sit down immediately after an interview and jot down your impressions of the interview - things that the tape recorder could not pick up. These notes will help you remember and explore the "process" of the interview.

How to Use the Interview Data in Your Paper

The interview data should be an important part of your final paper. Brief quotes or references to what people said is a great waste of the interview. Quotes that are out of context in your paper are also insufficient. Your goal is to thoroughly INTEGRATE the interview data into the topics and themes of your paper. Consider these questions:
  • does the interview data support or contradict your thesis?
  • did what the interviewee say support the articles you read?
  • did what she say contradict the articles? What might this mean?
  • did what he say support or contradict the other interviewees?
  • did what she say add new dimensions to the articles or to what other interviewees said?
  • what was the "big picture" of what each interviewee said and how does it relate to your thesis?
  • how did the "process" of the different interviews compare, and does this reveal any insights concerning your thesis?
Citing the interviewees and using quotes. There are several ways you can refer to the information from the interviews: (1) summarize in your own words what he or she said, (2) use short quotes (for phrases and one or two short sentences) that you embed into a paragraph, and, (3) use a separate indented paragraph (a "block") for longer quotes (three or more sentences).

The second and especially the third method will catch the reader's eye, so make sure you are quoting something important. Don't bore the reader with uninteresting quotes or statements that are trivial or obvious.

Identifying the Interviewees. In the method section of the paper you should describe who each of the interviewees are, why you asked them to participate in the study, and how you located them. Interviewees who are professionals or "experts" on some topic should be identified by name, profession, where they work, the details of their expertise, and any other information about them that is relevant to your project. Other interviewees should be identified by name, age, marital status, occupation, and why specifically they were selected for your project.

In some projects the identities of the interviewees must NOT be mentioned in your paper. You must always obtain permission (as part of the informed consent) to mention their names in your paper. For people who wish to remain anonymous, you can mention their real age, marital status, occupation, and any other information about them that is relevant to your project. BUT USE A FALSE NAME. Also, never mention ANY information (like occupation) if that information is so specific or unique that it could reveal who they are.

See also: Writing a Paper based on Interview Research

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